Pseudonymity has become an important phenomenon on the Internet and other computer networks. In computer networks, pseudonyms possess varying degrees of anonymity, ranging from highly linkable public pseudonyms (the link between the pseudonym and a human being is publicly known or easy to discover), potentially linkable non-public pseudonyms (the link is known to system operators but is not publicly disclosed), and unlinkable pseudonyms (the link is not known to system operators and cannot be determined). For example, true anonymous remailer enables Internet users to establish unlinkable pseudonyms; those that employ non-public pseudonyms (such as the now-defunct Penet remailer) are called pseudonymous remailers.
The continuum of unlinkability can also be seen, in part, on Wikipedia. Some registered users make no attempt to disguise their real identities (for example, by placing their real name on their user page). The pseudonym of unregistered users is their IP address, which can, in many cases, easily be linked to them. Other registered users prefer to remain anonymous, and do not disclose identifying information. However, Wikipedia's server logs may enable system administrators to determine the IP address, and perhaps the true name, of a registered user (see for a list of the conditions under which such a linkage would be attempted). It is possible, in theory, to create an unlinkable Wikipedia pseudonym by using an Open proxy, a Web server that disguises the user's IP address. However, most open proxy addresses are blocked indefinitely due to the their frequent use by vandals (see ). Additionally, Wikipedia's public record of a user's interest areas, writing style, and argumentative positions may still establish an identifiable pattern.
System operators (sysops) at sites offering pseudonymity, such as Wikipedia, are not likely to build unlinkability into their systems, as this would render them unable to obtain information about abusive users quickly enough to stop vandalism and other undesirable behaviors. Law enforcement personnel, fearing an avalanche of illegal behavior are equally unenthusiastic. Still, some users and privacy activists like ACLU believe that Internet users deserve stronger pseudonymity so that they can protect themselves against identity theft, illegal government surveillance, stalking, and other unwelcome consequences of Internet use (including unintentional disclosures of their personal information, as discussed in the next section). Their views are supported by laws in some nations (such as Canada) that guarantee citizens a right to speak using a pseudonym. This right does not, however, give citizens the right to demand publication of pseudonymous speech on equipment they do not own.
Most Web sites that offer pseudonymity retain information about users. These sites are often susceptible to unauthorized intrusions into their non-public database systems. For example, in 2000, a Welsh teenager obtained information about more than 26,000 credit card accounts, including that of Bill Gates. In 2003, VISA and MasterCard announced that intruders obtained information about 5.6 million credit cards. Sites that offer pseudonymity are also vulnerable to confidentiality breaches. In a study of a Web dating service and a pseudonymous remailer, Cambridge University researchers discovered that the systems used by these Web sites to protect user data could be easily compromised, even if the pseudonymous channel is protected by strong encryption. Typically, the protected pseudonymous channel exists within a broader framework in which multiple vulnerabilities exist. Pseudonym users should bear in mind that, given the current state of Web security engineering, their true names may be revealed at any time.
If users can obtain new pseudonymous identities freely or at very low cost, reputation-based systems are vulnerable to whitewashing attacks (also called serial pseudonymity), in which abusive users continuously discard their old identities and acquire new ones in order to escape the consequences of their behavior: "On the Internet, nobody knows that yesterday you were a dog, and therefore should be in the doghouse today. Users of Internet communities who have been banned only to return with new identities are called sock puppets.
The social cost of cheaply discarded pseudonyms is that experienced users lose confidence in new users, and may subject new users to abuse until they establish a good reputation. System operators may need to remind experienced users that most newcomers are well-intentioned (see, for example, ). Concerns have also been expressed about sock puppets exhausting the supply of easily remembered usernames. Proposals have been made to raise the costs of obtaining new identities (for example, by charging a small fee or requiring e-mail confirmation). Others point out that Wikipedia's success is attributable in large measure to its nearly non-existent initial participation costs.